Flamengo go toe to toe with Liverpool

Bruno Henrique was a big threat but he couldn’t find the net (pic: Reuters)

Flamengo were sunk by a Roberto Firmino goal in extra time, but can be proud of their performance.

Although they were ultimately beaten, Flamengo produced a performance that they can be proud of against Liverpool in the World Club Cup final last Saturday. Roberto Firmino scored the only goal of the game, but Flamengo created some good chances, forced Alisson into some good saves, had more possession, had Liverpool on the back foot for spells during the game and were close to taking the game to penalties.

A lot was made before the game of the gulf in resources between the two clubs, which I downplayed slightly in the match preview. Ultimately, resources do make a difference. Liverpool splashed out more than £80 million for the world’s best defender Virgil Van Dijk, while Flamengo paid £1 million for Pablo Mari. He has been an excellent signing and I’m sure that some good European sides will be looking at him after a very good season for Flamengo (Pablo Mari was on the books of Manchester City but sold without ever playing a game for them), but Van Dijk is much better than Pablo Mari. Not 80 times better, but Liverpool have better players, thanks to their greater resources.

That being said, resources do not mean everything in football; team spirit, tactics and confidence all play a massive part. And Flamengo have those three things in abundance, while also possessing quality. At the end of the 11 players play 11 players; finances mean nothing when the players are on the pitch.

Flamengo’s 3-0 victory against Liverpool in the Intercontinental Cup in 1981 was commented on before the game. There were also comments about Sao Paulo’s win against Flamengo in 2005; a match I remember watching on a small TV as I worked as a sports officer at Regents Park. I remember the Tite-inspired Corinthians victory against Chelsea in 2012. I also remember a Boca Juniors victory against AC Milan in 2003, a match I watched in the Argentine city of Ushuaia. (After which the Boca Juniors fans proceeded to install a Boca Juniors flag alongside the Argentina flag in the town square.)

So in my head, the South American teams frequently give the European teams a run for their money, despite the difference in resources. What I hadn’t realized before the game was just how dominant European sides have been in these matches in recent years. South American teams seem to give the Europeans more of a run for their money in the past. I remember the old ones. I remember the famous South American victories, which makes sense because I follow South American football closely and these legendary games (from the South American point of view) stick in my head.

It turns out that European sides have won 12 out of the last 13 World Club Cups. The gulf between club football in South America and that in Europe has opened, mainly due to the resources; and if anything, this in the resources is growing.

With all of this in mind, Flamengo’s performance was even more impressive. They might have lost the game but they can be proud of their performance. They didn’t just try to park the bus. They didn’t soak up pressure and hit on the counter attack. They did modify their game, which is what all good teams do, but broadly, they stuck to their game plan, and seized the initiative.

Flamengo did come under pressure during spells, but for chunky spells of the game, they had Liverpool on the back foot. The had more possession overall (53% to 47%) and the shot count was fairly even (15 for Flamengo versus Liverpool’s 18). Liverpool had chances inside the first ten minutes, but from then on, Flamengo looked very good and I’d say they even looked the better team in that first half; very slick in possession, comfortable at the back and dangerous going forward. Bruno Henrique was very impressive, and a big threat, as he has been all season.

Admittedly, it is worth keeping Liverpool’s style in perspective. In the big matches, they do not always dominate possession; they go direct when required and adjust their game based on the opposition. They also have a they have a top defence and top keeper and are comfortable soaking up pressure when they need too. They wouldn’t have minded Flamengo dominating possession and would not have been too alarmed about spending some time in the game on the back foot. But Flamengo played like a big team, and didn’t show any fear. That they were able to do this against Europe’s best team for spells in the game was impressive.

As it happens, Liverpool began to figure out how to stifle Bruno Henrique in the second half. And at that point they started to create better chances. In the end, Liverpool created the better chances over the course of the game.

Henderson had a shot brilliantly tipped away by Diego Alves. Firmino should have scored and Salah wasted a good opportunity in normal time. There was also the strange incident of Mane’s clear run on goal, which was ended by a Rafinha challenge. The referee initially gave a penalty only to overturn this after a VAR review, in which he seemed to use the lowest quality camera image available. Right decision to overturn the penalty, but there was a foul and if I’m honest, it should have been a red card.

Flamengo though, forced Alisson into an excellent save when the scores were equal. Against most teams that would have been a goal, and Flamengo would have been on their way to a win. Of course, these fine margins are why Liverpool are European Champions and their goalkeeper Alisson is one of the best. Flamengo also had an excellent chance to level the game deep into extra time, when Lincoln blazed a shot over the bar. Had that chance fallen to Bruno Henrique or Gabigol, the match would very likely have gone to penalties. Ultimately, I think Liverpool shaded it, but it was a close game with some very margins separating the two teams.

From a non-Flamenguista Brazilian perspective, this was perhaps the perfect outturn: Flamengo played well, pushed Liverpool all the way and gave a very good account of the Brazilian domestic game, while the defeat means that the bragging rights of Flamengo fans has been reduced somewhat. It was also nice that two of Liverpool’s best performers on the day were Brazilian: Firmino, for his well taken goal, and Alisson, for his excellent save at a key moment in the game.

A good day for Brazilian football. A great day for the neutral and a very intriguing match. Close, and somewhat unlucky, if you are a Flamenguista. What Jorge Jesus has done this year at Flamengo is fantastic – I’d like to see more Brazilian teams and coaches be as bold, and not use resources as an excuse.

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